“Mistakes were made” is a phrase used in politics intentionally in the passive voice.
This specific usage, typically adopted by politicians or high-ranking officials, serves to acknowledge a problem or error without attributing explicit responsibility or fault.
In the precise construction of this phrase, no actor is specified, which means that although it’s conceded that mistakes occurred, no one is directly blamed.
Political analyst Bill Schneider once referred to it as the “past exonerative” tense.
The phrase can be used to diffuse potential criticisms, evade scrutiny, or prevent deeper inquiries into missteps or wrongdoing.
Although it superficially admits error, “mistakes were made” simultaneously tries to distance the speaker and their administration from direct blame.
President Richard Nixon and his spokesman Ron Ziegler popularized the phrase during the “third rate burglary” that became the Watergate scandal.
The phrase has been utilized in various contexts since, from the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s to the 2008 financial meltdown.
Despite its seemingly benign wording, the phrase “mistakes were made” carries significant connotations.
It epitomizes a strategy used by politicians who need to acknowledge an issue while minimizing their own culpability.
“Mistakes were made” simultaneously conveys an admission and a distancing, a delicate rhetorical maneuver that has made it a mainstay in the political landscape.
Use of “Mistakes Were Made” in a sentence
- In the aftermath of the scandal, the embattled governor gave a brief statement to the press, asserting, “Mistakes were made, and it’s important now to learn and move forward.”
- When questioned about the controversial policy’s negative outcomes, the secretary deflected, stating, “Mistakes were made, and we are working diligently to rectify them.”
- During the aftermath of the failed military operation, the President admitted, “Mistakes were made, but we are committed to learning from this incident to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.